And Their Voice, Florida Citrus Mutual
By Andrew Meadows
The Florida citrus industry is at a challenging point in its history. A disease known as Huanglongbing (HLB), or citrus greening, is threatening a way of life that spans more than five generations. The disease is killing trees across Florida’s 525,000-acre citrus belt.
So it is more important than ever for citrus growers to have a strong voice as local, state and federal officials make decisions that could affect the industry’s future. Florida Citrus Mutual provides that unified voice.
Formed in 1948, Mutual has served the Florida citrus grower for more than 65 years. Led by a board of 21 member-elected directors and CEO Michael W. Sparks, Mutual is the largest cooperative association dedicated to helping Florida citrus growers produce and market their crops at a profit.
In the past decade, Florida Citrus Mutual has been instrumental in securing more than $1 billion in assistance for Florida growers through hurricane and disease compensation as well as federal research dollars. Mutual members also receive a wealth of inside information about their industry that they can’t obtain anywhere else through a number of proprietary publications and Mutual’s website – FLCitrusMutual.com, along with a professional staff that is second to none.
“In citrus greening, we are facing an existential threat to our industry,” Sparks said. “But there are a lot of positive things going on as well and I remain optimistic.”
Meeting the Threat
“Research shows growers can control the psyllid [a tiny insect that feeds on the leaves and stems of citrus trees]; plantings are increasing and growing citrus can still be profitable. I know of two growers who are putting in almost 5,000 acres of citrus right now. They believe they can raise citrus in the current environment. Standing on a hill overlooking these new plantings is really quite a positive sight,” Sparks stated.
Florida citrus remains a powerful economic engine covering more than 525,000 acres and contributing $9 billion annually and 76,000 jobs to the state’s economy. Citrus forms the backbone of many communities throughout the state’s interior. The fruit directly supports processing plants and packinghouses, but ancillary businesses such as banks, truck dealerships, plant nutrition companies, restaurants and equipment stores would have a hard time surviving if it were not for citrus.
Many citrus families have done it for three, four and five generations while facing a number of crises including drought, freezes, hurricanes and disease. “Don’t write our obituary just yet,” Sparks said. “We are resilient.”
In addition to the federal money garnered by Mutual, citrus growers have spent $80 million over the past 8 years of their own money to fund critical citrus research designed to beat greening. This shows the level of commitment to the future of this industry. So too does the cooperation between growers to manage the bug that spreads the disease.
The industry now has a world-class budwood and germplasm infrastructure to support re-plantings thanks to the Florida Legislature which funded an expansion through the FDACS (Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services) budget.
“We have the best and brightest researchers working on the puzzle right now and they are making headway. Antimicrobials are looking to be a viable therapy for trees in the ground. The thermal therapy heat treatment is showing positive results as well,” Sparks said. “The Farm Bill authorized $125 million over the next five years in citrus research funding. That is great news and shows Congress’ support for the domestic citrus industry. The funding will go a long way in helping us beat greening.”